Farms that rely on school field trips and birthdays are suffering amid pandemic

Posted at 3:35 PM, Aug 13, 2020

As school districts across the country prepare to return to school, small businesses that rely on child visitors are closely watching.

"We're probably at about 15-20% of the business that we normally do. It has been a real gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching moment," said Susan Shaw, owner of The Art Barn in Georgia.

When the pandemic hit in March, she thought her business would only be on a month hiatus. Shaw, who goes by Farmer Sue, quickly realized that wasn't the case.

"By the end of the month I realized we are not going to be back to normal. The schools, our entire spring was lost and 95% of our summer is lost and 100% of our fall is lost because no one is going to be coming out on field trips," said Shaw.

The Art Barn provides art and agriculture entertainment for children throughout the year. Shaw hosts birthday parties, school field trips and even teaches at private schools in the afternoon. They, like Benton Family Farms in Kentucky, rely almost entirely on birthday parties, field trips and summer camps to keep their businesses running.

Benton Family Farms says their camps ended up getting canceled.

"Nothing. Five weeks of camp, every weekend of birthday parties, all of our mobile trailers going out. Our mobile trailer was going out to day care centers, churches and libraries," said owner Mary Marcum.

Marcum says every single scheduled event they had was canceled. Marcum has been running educational programs on the farm her parents owned for 72 years.

"For eight weeks now I thought, gosh what can we do? Because my husband does most of the books and he’s said, 'You're in trouble. You’ve got to do something.' And I had done goat yoga about three years ago, but I didn’t have the time," said Marcum.

Marcum ended up turning to that one program she felt could hold up during the pandemic: goat yoga.

"Goat yoga! People were like, it's almost outdoors, it just has a cover over it. It was an open barn and they started coming!" said Marcum.

The twice weekend sessions are helping Benton Family Farms pay for some of the feed for their animals. Marcum is now taking donations, holding auctions online and creating any limited outdoor programming she can to try and stay open. So far, only about 180 people are coming out to visit the farm a month. Compare that to their normal of 4,000 people a month. "You're talking about $10 a parent and a child. At 4,000 that’s $40,000. I can do all the little things I want but there’s a lot that’s just too much to make up," said Marcum.

"There were a lot of tears, more prayers and then more tears and then it was finally in mid-June I was able to grab my bootstraps and say, ‘No, you made this business from absolutely nothing, a crazy idea no one thought would work. Girl get your gumption and get going,'" said Shaw.

The Art Barn is also trying to be creative with programming to bring people back to her farm during the pandemic. Shaw is creating educational videos of her programs that can be used as a virtual field trip for school districts across the country.

"There literally will be a field trip online and we’ve broken them into the five stations so the school can purchase, rent those videos and go online," said Shaw.

Small businesses like The Art Barn and Benton Family Farms are desperately hoping that schools will allow field trips again soon. Right now, they aren't expecting any student visitors this fall but are hopeful that COVID-19 rates will at least be low enough for field trips to resume in the spring.